What is the secret to good teaching?
You have written a book entitled Guter Unterricht (Good Teaching). What sparked your interest in the issue?
I am interested in how children and young people learn and why some children find it more difficult than others. Most of all, however, I wanted to find out what teachers can do to help children learn effectively.
What makes a good teacher?
On the one hand, a good teacher challenges children to think and, on the other, recognises how much progress each student is making, gives feedback and reflects on their own approach. Efficient classroom management is another sign of a good teaching style.
What do you mean by ‘challenging children to think’?
It’s what scientists call ‘cognitive activation’. Children are challenged to think when faced with exercises that stimulate curiosity, tie in with their existing interests and create a certain amount of pressure to find a solution. The trick is to incorporate these kinds of exercises and problems into lesson plans.
Can you give an example?
In sociology or in politics and economics, students might look at the separation of powers in Germany. Children will find some parts of this topic very dry – and it doesn’t exactly get them thinking. What you can do, however, is link the theory with real-life issues. For example, you might ask ‘who actually decides how many refugees are allowed to come to Germany?’ Using this example, you can then discuss the role of the Federal Chancellor, the Constitutional Court, parliament and the political parties and thus explore the separation of powers.
The second step then involves reinforcing knowledge. What exactly do you mean by that?
Cognitive activation is the first step to good teaching. The teacher then has to support the students’ cognitive processes, offer assistance and provide feedback if the students begin to form misconceptions. I call this ‘constructive support’.
The teacher–student relationship plays a role here, doesn’t it?
Yes, because it’s important that the student is valued even if they make a mistake. In-stead of being mocked, rejected or criticised, they should receive factual (and not personal) feedback, and the error should be corrected. Also, good teachers don’t go too quickly and wait long enough for an answer whenever they ask a question.
Your third point was about documenting progress. Do you mean in the form of tests?
For the most part, no. You have to distinguish between learning situations and those where a certain level of performance is required.
How do you distinguish between these situations?
When learning to drive, for example, students will have between 20 and 30 lessons. During these lessons, they make mistakes that are corrected by their driving instructor. These are learning situations and are not graded. The learner doesn’t attempt to conceal their mistakes. After all, they want to learn to drive and, if necessary, be corrected. Then there are situations where a certain level of performance is required. In this example, the driving test. Here, of course, the learner driver doesn’t want to make any slip-ups, as they are being examined. If we come back to the school environment, this means that we need as many learning situations as possible and as few performance situations as necessary.
It all sounds fine in theory, but it’s hard to achieve in practice.
Yes, it’s also very costly. This kind of learning process is very much in its infancy in Germany. For each subject, you need a large pool of exercises that teachers can set and evaluate quickly, but there are now software programs, such as quop.
What constitutes good classroom management?
Good classroom management prevents disruption and thus maximises the effective learning time. Teachers have to establish and demand rules and routines in their lessons at an early stage. This should happen in the first few weeks, even though no one has probably disrupted the lessons at that point. Students need to feel that the teacher has eyes in the back of their head. Teachers who regularly change their position during lessons will see and hear everything that goes on.
What should be the teacher’s main aim?
Teachers, of course, want their students to learn something. The aim should be to support each child as much as possible. Different children have different learning needs. It’s not the job of teachers to iron out these differences, but to try and maximise the potential of each and every child.
Do you have a final tip for teachers?
Good teaching is not an art form, but something that can be learnt. As in all professions, some find it easier and some find it harder to acquire the skills needed for a good teaching style. But it doesn’t matter. Teacher training is never complete, but is a never-ending work in progress – and good professional development is part of the puzzle.